June 22, 2014

Should We Gamble on Wilmorite?

Was the Onondaga County Legislature really thinking of throwing our support behind a proposed casino a few dozen miles down the road? Being developed by Wilmorite?

I say 'our' support, because Leg Chair Ryan McMahon and the rest of them are really speaking for us when they vote on and pass resolutions and laws.  And if you're wondering why they thought that throwing our support behind a project outside Onondaga County, proposed by a developer with a (at least recently) spotty track record inside Onondaga County is a priority, you're not alone.

As noted in a recent article by Michelle Breidenbach in the Post-Standard, Wilmorite is going to submit a proposal for one of the casinos authorized by last year's resolution to amend our state Constitution to
allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.
The pie-in-the-sky constitutional amendment, a gamble in and of itself, was approved by 57% of New Yorkers hungry for any kind of tax relief, opening up the ground wars for developers to find places to put these job engines and start moving New York into a glorious state of economic boom.  Because that's what we promised ourselves, silly us.

As you recall, Onondaga County is not eligible for our own casino, being in an exclusive territory given to the Oneida Nation by our Sonova Governor Andrew Cuomo, who rolled the dice by negotiating with and securing an agreement from the Oneidas to protect their investment and share some of their wealth ($25 million a year) with the state and local governmental jurisdictions in the neighborhood surrounding their Turning Stone Resort and Casino.

Subsequent negotiations with other Native American casino operators established other exclusive zones around the state, leaving three zones where casinos could be built - the Fingerlakes area, including the Southern Tier; the Catskills, and the Capital District.

Enter Wilmorite, the Rochester developer who has long been engaged in Onondaga County as well:
  • Think ShoppingTown Mall and Great Northern Mall, once glistening, booming retail establishments.
  • And think the proposed OnCenter Hotel, to be built downtown using the proceeds from a racino that Wilmorite wanted to build in Cicero.  
  • And think, more recently, of the defaulted mortgage on the old Sibley's building, which a local developer wants to get working on, and hopefully won't be delayed by Wilmorite's default. 

The racino project, which the Legislature voted to support back in 2011, had all the same promise as the casino -- jobs and sales tax revenue and the like -- except that it would have actually been in Onondaga County. Alas, nothing ever materialized on that deal, and early last year, the Legislature (with several new members) rescinded our support. We moved on, keeping Onondaga County safe from state-sponsored gambling which local politicians have long opposed here, and Wilmorite moved on to bigger and better things. Except that they came back, to ask for our support for their casino.

The casino is proposed for a spot north of the Thruway across from the big Petro station at the Waterloo exit, and across the street from an Amish family farm.  Wilmorite is again waving the promise flag, saying either that 60% of the jobs would come from Onondaga County, or that 60% of the jobs would go through unions in Onondaga County - there's some lack of clarity there, it seems -- and hoping that we would get on board to make their proposal (which promises the "high energy and excitement of Las Vegas") have more oomph than others that are expected for this gambling zone, including likely front-runner Tioga Downs.

Why are they the likely winner? Well, for starters, they have an existing racino, and more importantly, they have the advantage of being near another gambling state's border. And that was one of the big reasons Cuomo wanted casino gambling in New York, remember?
We literally hemorrhage people from the borders who go to casinos. I think it will keep the money in this state...
Legislature Chair Ryan McMahon pulled the vote on the resolution of support because it didn't have enough support even within the Republican caucus to pass, and at the same time chastised the people who would be directly impacted -- residents of Tyre -- noting that they were "muddying the issue with a fight they've already lost" and saying
They're looking at if from the merits of how it impacts them. We're looking at it from a standpoint of how this affects our constituents from an economic standpoint and it clearly would have been good as far as jobs go.
Because, as you know, once the floodgates are open and the promise of jobs is on the table, there's no reason for us here in Onondaga County to do anything other the muddy the waters in another county, and who really gives a rap about the people in the town of Tyre anyway?

Onondaga County is already using casino gambling as an economic development tool. For example, some of the money the county is putting towards the seasonal concert amphitheater on the west shore of Onondaga Lake -- a crap shoot worthy of any Las Vegas high roller --  is an advance on our projected share of the money from Oneida Nation/Turning Stone agreement, so from that perspective I guess it makes sense that we'd at least think about gambling again with Wilmorite.

Alas, as with most gambles, timing is everything. And so is picking the right horse. The fact that McMahon couldn't rally his troops and bring the vote to the floor means we missed the opportunity to support the deal, and it will hold (or fold) without us. That may be to our benefit, as it wouldn't look good on our resume if we backed the Wilmorite horse again - and lost, again.